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Brad Pitt: 'Moneyball,' Life And 'The Stalkerazzi'

The veteran actor has played a Nazi-hunter, a vampire, a cowboy hitchhiker and the outlaw Jesse James. In his latest film, Brad Pitt plays the manager of baseball's Oakland A's. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross why the part interested him and what it's like to live life in the public eye.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on September 22, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 22, 2011: interview with Brad Pitt; Interview with Dana Spiotta.








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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Brad Pitt. I think you've probably heard of him. He's starring in the new movie "Moneyball," which is adapted from Michael Lewis's bestselling book about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's.

Among Pitt's many other movies are "Tree of Life," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Inglourious Basterds," "Burn after Reading," "Ocean's Eleven," "Seven," "Fight Club" and "Legends of the Fall." When "Moneyball" begins, Billy Beane recognizes that his team doesn't have the money the big teams like the Yankees do, and therefore, he can't compete in bidding wars for star players.

Beane decides to use statistical analysis to figure which players have the assets his team needs, and he ends up going after players that other managers consider too old, too injured or too mediocre.

But Beane believes he understands their unique talents and knows how to put them to use. Pitt plays Billy Beane. Brad Pitt first got noticed in the film "Thelma and Louise." Let's start with a scene from "Moneyball." Beane has recruited a number-crunching economist from Yale, played by Jonah Hill, to conduct statistical analyses of players. Based on that, they've started trading players and changing the lineup but without informing the field manager, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Here's the three of them meeting before a game.


BRAD PITT: (As Billy Beane) Art, you got a minute?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Art Howe) Yeah. Take a seat.

PITT: (As Billy) You can't start Pena at first tonight. You'll have to start Hatteburg.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) I don't want to go 15 rounds, Billy. The lineup card is mine, and that's all.

PITT: (As Billy) That lineup card is definitely yours. I'm just saying you can't start Pena at first.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) Well, I am starting him at first.

PITT: (As Billy) I don't think so. He plays for Detroit now.

HOFFMAN: (As Art) You traded Pena?

GROSS: Brad Pitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to make...

PITT: Thank you.

GROSS: Why did you want to make this movie, "Moneyball"?

PITT: Several reasons. I first picked up the book by Michael Lewis and was taken with these guys who out of necessity had to challenge conventional wisdom of their industry. They - I never looked at sports from the economic standpoint, and they are a team - we deal with the Oakland A's in 2002, and they are a team who had a payroll of $38 million to platoon a team, and they're playing against teams that have $120 million with another $100 million in reserves.

And there is - there was no way to have an equal fight. And so what these guys had to do was re-question baseball, baseball knowledge. They had to take everything apart and start over again.

GROSS: Billy Beane really loves winning, hates losing, but he can't watch the game. Like, his team is playing, and he can't watch. And I think that's because there's so many games in the season, and it's so incremental, but I think he just can't bear the suspense of it either. Do you relate to that at all?

PITT: I do relate to that. He describes it as not wanting to make emotional decision, that when he watches, he gets too involved, and he wants to be able to make - he wants to understand the process and the outcome of that process and then make a clear, level-headed decision afterwards.

And for me, I mean, I guess it's - I certainly watch the films during the editing process, certainly on the producorial(ph) end, over and over again, and I can distance myself from the actor up there. I know when something's working or when it's not working.

GROSS: It's a very, like, dialogue-driven film, even though there's a lot of, like, baseball scenes in it. But your performance, even though you're basically sitting in a chair talking and making phone calls, your performance is very kinetic. You always seem to be moving, you know, chewing ice, eating, moving your hands, throwing something.

Is it challenging to do a kinetic performance in what is basically, you know, a managerial position kind of role?

PITT: You know, Billy's that way. Watching Billy, as soon as the phone rings, he becomes a very myopic and laser-guided, and he himself is - becomes very intense. And when you approach a scene, I guess you're coming from the inside, and the need to accomplish something, and that manifests itself in certain movements and eating and the need to, you know, keep clawing until you get the answer you're looking for.

GROSS: So Bennett Miller, who directed "Moneyball," did a documentary called "The Cruise," and he directed "Capote," the biopic about Truman Capote that Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in. Of course, Hoffman is also in "Moneyball."

But did he give you any advice about playing a real person since he'd been through that one time before?

PITT: No, we - you know, we talked more about getting the book to the screen. Listen, Bennett Miller was a great asset to this film, and the thing that's usually overlooked is the tone of the film, and what you see up on the screen is completely his creation. And I just think he's one of the greats.

But we talk to - you know, the book is very dense. It's dealing with economics and sabermetrics and not necessarily edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. At the same time, there's this story of underdogs and of value and people getting a chance who have been overlooked and what is our own idea of success and failure? And he was able to bring these human elements to the front of the story.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brad Pitt, and he's starring in the new movie "Moneyball." Let's talk about some of your other films. "Let's start with "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino's recent film. It's set during World War II, and you play Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who's charged with putting together a team of, like, real killers to kill the Nazis.

So here you are explaining the mission to your team.


PITT: (As Lieutenant Aldo Raine) My name is Lieutenant Aldo Raine, and I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight soldiers, eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, you all might have heard rumors about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier.

(As Raine) We're going to be dropped into France dressed as civilians, and once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhacking guerrilla army, we're going to be doing one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis. Now, I don't know about you all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains across 5,000 mile of water, fighting my way through half of Sicily and jump out of (BEEP) airplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity.

(As Raine) Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hating, mass-murdering maniac, and they need to be destroyed. That's why any every som'bitch we find wearing a Nazi uniform, they're going to die.

GROSS: That's Brad Pitt in a scene from "Inglourious Basterds." I like the way you say Nazis.

PITT: That's tasty stuff, only from the mind of Quentin Tarantino.

GROSS: Yeah, when I interviewed him on the show, he was talking about how he thinks of his dialogue writing as being like poetry or lyrics or rap, and he didn't mean that in an arrogant way. He just meant to say that he wants there to be a rhythm to the writing and a rhythm in the way the dialogue is acted.

And I was wondering, like, if you talked to him about that at all, if he talked to you about that, and if you find his writing different from most screenwriting.

PITT: Yes, it's - it was evident on the first read. There is a cadence and I would say a music to his dialogue, and what you heard there is exactly what I heard when I first read the script. There's - it defines itself, and you just sing along.

GROSS: Did the script say to pronounce Nazis, Nazis?

PITT: No, it didn't say that, but we're from the same general neck of the woods. So we both understood.

GROSS: Who, you and Lieutenant Aldo Raine, or you and Quentin Tarantino because he's from L.A., isn't he?

PITT: Yeah, but he's originally from Kentucky and has a lot of roots, Kentucky roots.

GROSS: Oh, okay. You have a scar on your neck in the film, and it looks like either you were strangled with a wire and survived, or your throat was slashed and you survived. Do you know what happened to your throat?

PITT: Yes, and he said it would never be explained in this film, and if he's ever to do a - what he called a prequel/sequel, then we'll reveal it then.

GROSS: And is that a possibility?

PITT: He talks about it. You know, he's got several things percolating at once.

GROSS: My guest is Brad Pitt. He's starring in the new film "Moneyball." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brad Pitt, and he's now starring in the film "Moneyball." So let's, in our little mini-film festival, move on to "Burn After Reading," which was written and directed by the Coen brothers. And you play a kind of goofy personal trainer at a gym called Hardbodies, where Frances McDormand's character also works.

And she's been trying to get enough money to have some cosmetic surgery done, and you see an opportunity when you find a computer disk that's been left behind by one of the customers in the locker room. And you think the disk has top secret government information. What you don't know is that what it really has is the first draft of a memoir by a former CIA analyst.

In this scene, you go to Frances McDormand's home to tell her you found out the name of the CIA guy, and later you suggest that you can blackmail him and tell him that you have the disk, and you can give it back to him for a price. So here you are when you first walk in to Frances McDormand's home with the name of the CIA guy.


PITT: (As Chad Feldheimer) Oh my God.

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) Do you know what time it is?

PITT: (As Chad) Uh-huh. So, like, I couldn't call you. You told me you answered your phone, but I know who the guy is.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) The guy?

PITT: (As Chad) Yeah, the guy, the secret guy.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) So is he high up?

PITT: (As Chad) I don't know if he's high - probably. I mean, I got his name, not his rank.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) So what's his name?

PITT: (As Chad) Osborne Cox.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) Never heard of him.

PITT: (As Chad) Oh, you're so plugged into the intelligence community.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) I'm just saying as a layperson.

PITT: (As Chad) Well, I think the quality of the intelligence dictates how high up he is, not what we know. Do you have any water? I got to hydrate.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) I got tap water.

PITT: (As Chad) Are you kidding?

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) How do you know who he is?

PITT: (As Chad) Sources.

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) What do you mean sources?

PITT: (As Chad) You got like Gatorade or anything besides like Maryland swamp water? Do you know how far this is from my...

MCDORMAND: (As Linda) How do you know his name?

PITT: (As Chad) I got this geek friend, Eddie Gayegos(ph). He does computer stuff, hooks up people's computers and programs their VCRs and (BEEP). So he examines the files and pulls off a digital watermark, which tells you what computer it was created on, (BEEP) child's play for Eddie. And I got his number, I got his number.

GROSS: And with that number, you plan to call the agent and blackmail him. And the agent is played by John Malkovich. It's a really funny film. You seem to really enjoy comedy. Is that fun for you to do?

PITT: Absolutely. I enjoy it all. I want to keep mixing it up and I find that the next film is always informed by the last film you finished. And what cracked me up about this one, besides being a Coens fan for life, was that here's a guy who is not interested in anything beyond his own neighborhood, that has no intellectual curiosity for the world at large, and, you know, almost trapped in his suburbia lifestyle and quite happy with it and thinks things are going to go a certain way and can't imagine they wouldn't go any other way. And when they do, he's quite rattled by it.

GROSS: So I think we heard some - a little bit of, like, clapping in that scene. You're doing this, like, little dance because you're so excited that you got the name and the number. Was that in the script, or did you just kind of put that in?

PITT: No, you know, when you're investigating your character, I guess you say, it's always the most fun part of the process. And I just figured he went to a lot of the neighborhood clubs. I figured he liked a little - I figured he was really high on Madonna.

GROSS: So when you're working with the Coen brothers, who do everything together, they write together, they direct together or so we're told, how do you know who to talk to when you have a question?

PITT: They - exactly that. They do work together. They've got a really lovely thing going. And you talk to either one of them, and they both confer with each other, and they're not precious about any of it. And you do a couple of takes and move on. One is sitting in the director's chair and one in the producer's chair, but they're both in charge and confer with each other. And it's a really light, kind of family atmosphere. It's really good fun.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Oklahoma and in Missouri. And your family was Southern Baptist evangelicals?

PITT: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we grew up Southern Baptist and then somewhere in my high school years, my family moved more towards the charismatic movement.

GROSS: So what was your Christian background like? What was the emphasis like in church? How was that reflected in your upbringing?

PITT: Well, it was - you know, it was Sunday school and do good and Bible study and daily prayer. But it was always something I wrestled with personally. I didn't - I was very curious about the world even at a young age, and I don't know at what point I became aware that other nations and other cultures didn't believe the same, and they believed in different religions, and my question is: Well, why don't they get to go to heaven then?

And the answer was always, well, everyone gets a chance, meaning at the word of God as it was described to me then. And that didn't sit right with me. But it - you know, at the same time, in times of trouble or discourse, it's a great comfort. And it wasn't until I left home that I really came to the conclusion that it didn't make sense to me for many other reasons than that.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned that there's a certain amount of comfort that you take when you have religion in your life. Did you give up a certain amount of comfort when you evicted religion from your life?

PITT: Yeah, it's very discombobulating for a period. But within time, people get - you get comfortable with yourself and the acceptance of the unknown, that we're not going to know until that time comes. And that's enough for me.

You know, I don't - I wrestle with this a lot even now because I don't want to step on anyone's religion. My family is still very dedicated. At the same time, I take great issue with it when it starts defining policy or ultimately becomes separatist. And that's what I see, and it's been the basis of our main conflicts throughout history.

GROSS: Now, you describe coming from a home where feelings weren't expressed. Did you have to learn the language of emotion in order to act?

PITT: I'm not sure I know how to answer that yet. I wouldn't define this as not knowing how to express because they're - we - sometimes what we don't say is more powerful than what we do say, and I find that in the iconic characters on screen. So there is still a communication and a transference of information.

GROSS: Now, you studied journalism in college. What did you expect to become?

PITT: I wasn't really sure. I was just investigating it for myself. They have one of the best J-schools in the country.

GROSS: This is where?

PITT: University of Missouri. And it just came to the time of graduation and everyone was - all my friends were committing to jobs and I just realized I was not ready for that yet. And it just occurred to me that, having always lamented that there wasn't the possibility or career choice of being in films, that I could go to it. And once I struck that little bit of discovery, I packed up my car, I didn't graduate. I had two weeks left, and I moved up to - moved out to L.A. like the...

GROSS: Why didn't you finish the two weeks? I mean, two weeks is such a - it's the blink of an eye.

PITT: There's a great line in - I'm blanking on Spike Jones' second film with Chris Cooper, but...

GROSS: Yeah, it's the Susan Orlean adaption(ph) . It's called "Adaptation."

PITT: Yeah, Spike's film "Adaptation," and him being into orchids prior to - if I recall right, had a career with fish, and someone asked him why he doesn't do that anymore, and he just says done with fish. And I felt that way. I just felt I was done, I was done with it.

GROSS: So you knew your mind.

PITT: Well, I knew where I wanted to go. I had a direction. I always liked those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination.

GROSS: So you go to L.A. and then what? You get there, then what?

PITT: I get there with - you know, like the cliche goes, with my beat-up Datsun, and I had $275 to my savings, and I landed in Burbank. And I got the paper, and I found some extra agencies. And by, you know, the end of that week, I was - I paid my 25 bucks to join up, and I was an extra.

GROSS: In what?

PITT: It started out industrial films and commercials, and then, you know, you work your way up. And I guess the biggest film I had was - I had, that's a funny way to put it - but was "Less Than Zero."

GROSS: You were an extra in "Less Than Zero"? That must have been fun.

PITT: And I enjoyed it, man. I just - oh, it was so much fun. I just wanted to be around film. Suddenly, I was on film, and I was on a set and watching how the guys - you know, how they do it.

GROSS: So what films do you love that made you want to be in films yourself?

PITT: I loved "Saturday Night Fever" when I was a kid. I couldn't believe people talked that way. It was just a whole other culture I didn't understand. I snuck into it. It was an R-rated film. And so it holds a special place.

I remember - I mean, it's still the films on my playlist today, would be "Dog Day Afternoon," "Cuckoo's Nest" was a huge one with me. When I - I would say "Strangelove" always cracks me up and "Apocalypse Now," another favorite.

GROSS: So you start getting in films and you get very famous. What was the strangest thing early on about actually - not only being successful, but being famous?

PITT: The strangest thing is suddenly being looked at and watched and judged, in a way. I mean, I don't know what I was expecting. You know, you're putting yourself in that ring. I just didn't think that far ahead. And I found it very discombobulating. I was very uncomfortable with the focus.

GROSS: So did that make you want to be in the limelight any more or less?

PITT: No, I still wanted to crack this film thing I was in, but I was committed. You know, I think one of the lovely things about where I grew up is it's considered great hubris to talk about yourself, and yet, you know, as we sit here now, it's part of the business, and I find it actually interesting and cathartic in some way.

But at that time, I was - I mean, a good 10 years I wrestled with it.

GROSS: About how much to share about yourself and...

PITT: Yeah, I was very, very protective.

GROSS: Brad Pitt will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new film "Moneyball." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Brad Pitt. He's starring in the new film "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis's book about Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A's. When we left off, we were talking about becoming famous and being in the limelight.

So you live in a world where money is so weird. I mean like you were able to sell the first pictures of the first child that Angelina Jolie gave birth to for $4.1 million to People magazine. And then you, you know, you donated the money to charity, put the money to good use. But that's just like so weird, to get that amount of money for a photograph.

PITT: It's bizarre.

GROSS: It's crazy. It's like values gone nuts. So...

PITT: It's bizarre.

GROSS: Yeah. (Unintelligible) what you're trying to do is like at least try to take the values gone nuts and put it to good use, put the money to good use.

PITT: Well, that was my feeling. I mean I know some of these guys who are in that stalkerazzi world, and you really have to separate them from the paparazzi in our industry. This is another breed. And they have their heroes who got the big scandalous shot, and which just promotes more of that. So going into this we knew - listen, it's a very strange thing to be selling photos of something that's very intimate and personal and those of which you want to protect. We knew from, you know, we had to plan an escape every day to get out of the house - kind of a "Mission Impossible" with decoys, and that's the life we live in, and that's the one we asked for. So - but we knew there was a bounty on our head and a huge bounty. And we understand the lengths they go to - I don't think people do - to get that shot. So we figured, let's cut it off from the beginning, and instead of that money going to people I do not respect, that we would make some good out of it. And there's the nice thing about our situation.

GROSS: So did it work? Did it head people off at the pass? Did it prevent you from being stalked in the way that you feared you would?

PITT: Yeah. It took that initial - the initial hit. Absolutely.

GROSS: So at least nobody else could claim that they had the first photo.

PITT: Right. And that's where the big bounty is.

GROSS: That's where the big bucks are. Right.

PITT: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I interview people for a living, that's how I spend my time, you know, and I care what my guests have to say, I'm really interested in hearing how the choices people make when they're living their lives, why they do what they do, how they do what they do. At the same time I don't really understand why everybody needs to know the intimate details of your personal life or your children's lives. And I imagine you don't really understand that either. But it's something you probably have to think about a whole lot more than I do. Do you have any answers to that? Like why do people feel that they need to know or that they're entitled to know personal details like that?

PITT: Well, we - I actually - we, you know, I divorce myself of it. I don't think about it, and as I say, enjoy life much more.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PITT: I recall - you know, there's a - I do know there's a positive side to it. Let me put it this way and let's see if it relates.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PITT: I know when I had seen people I respected when I was first starting, just that brush with them meant something to me, like my day felt special.

GROSS: Are there actors you felt that way about when you first met them?

PITT: Absolutely. You know, again, just being around it. And like being on the set of "Less Than Zero," I watched Robert Downey Jr. go by, I thought, yeah, that's all right.


GROSS: One of the things that you've been doing through your foundation is architectural work in New Orleans in one parish where there's a lot of destruction from Hurricane Katrina. Are you still involved with that? Is that still an ongoing project?

PITT: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we're still going and it's exceeded my expectations. We're over halfway through. We've made a commitment for 150, to get 150 families back in homes there, and it became an important statement for social justice, and I'm very happy and I'm even more happy to see the families return and make it their own and for their homes to be working for them as well as they are.

I know in like the Lower - we take the Lower Ninth Ward, and I know this is an area that's been historically marginalized. And for suddenly someone to come along, not just me, but I mean this whole thing, the money was raised from the kindness of strangers, for someone to come along and just to help them up, just give them a break, changes one's outlook on the world. And it's a happy place. And to be able to pass that along, to know that you've been fortunate and know the effect you have, I mean seeing what we've seen in our travels I would just, I see no other way. What I'm saying is, I'm complacent if I don't pass that on.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. You've said that you and Angelina Jolie will not marry until it's legal for all Americans to marry. And it's a statement in support of marriage equality. So was that always your reason for not marrying...


GROSS: ...or was that - like in other words, like if gay marriage is made legal in the United States, does that mean you're going to marry tomorrow?

PITT: That's a fair question. We're getting a lot of heat from the kids, I must say, so I hope we can hold out. But I – I agree with the statement. I just I think it's absolute out and out discrimination. I don't understand how you can dictate that, you can put that – you can confine someone else that way. It's, you know, it's life, liberty and happiness, and that's the country we live in and let's support that.

GROSS: So can I squeeze in one more film clip before we have to end?

PITT: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: Great. Okay. So this is "Fight Club" and this - this became a real like cult favorite. And you star in this with Edward Norton. And he plays somebody who's been traveling on business, meets your character on a plane and comes home to find his house has been destroyed. He calls you up and then you meet in a bar, and then you – you basically make a strange request to him. You say, hit me. Here's the clip.


EDWARD NORTON: (as The Narrator) What do you want me to do? You want me to hit you?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Come on. Do me this one favor.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) Why?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Why? I don't know why. I don't know. I've never been in a fight. Have you?

NORTON: (as The Narrator) No. But that's a good thing.

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) No, it is not. How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? I don't want to die without any scars.

(as Tyler Durden) Come on. Hit me, before I lose my nerve.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) God. This is crazy. I...

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) So go crazy. Let 'er rip.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) I don't know about this.

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) I don't either but who gives a (bleep). No one's watching. What do you care?

NORTON: (as The Narrator) This is crazy. You want me to hit you?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) That's right.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) What, like in the face?

PITT: (as Tyler Durden) Surprise me.

NORTON: (as The Narrator) This is so (bleep) stupid.

GROSS: That's my guest, Brad Pitt, with Edward Norton in a scene from "Fight Club." So yeah, the character says how much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight. Have you been in fights? I mean you've had to be in fights for movies. What about real life?

PITT: Not really.


PITT: Not really. Not for a long time, which I'm grateful to say.

GROSS: But even when you were young, did you?

PITT: Oh, certainly in my younger days. And they were always messy and scrappy and somewhat stupid.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So did you and Ed Norton end up hurting each other at all during the making of this film?

PITT: No. I don't think so. I mean we mainly just had a laugh.

GROSS: So how many people walk up to you and say the first rule of fight club is not to talk about fight club?

PITT: No one.

GROSS: Really?


GROSS: It's one of those like famous line, which I think I just got a couple of words wrong in, but nevertheless.

PITT: Sometimes like I'll get Tyler Durden. Heh, heh, heh, heh.


PITT: But nothing much more than that.

GROSS: What do people say when they meet you?

PITT: I'm just afraid, you know, people are doing things to my soup or, you know, at the restaurant or something.


GROSS: Do you have to worry about that?

PITT: I try not to.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

PITT: Terry, I thank you very much.

GROSS: Brad Pitt stars in the new film "Moneyball" based on Michael Lewis's bestselling book about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's. Tomorrow, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Michael Lewis about that book.











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TERRY GROSS, host: I picked up Dana Spiotta's novel, "Stone Arabia," after hearing our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review. She described it as a novel about responsibility, the responsibility artists have to there art and the responsibility family members have to take care of each other.

GROSS: The story is about a failed rock musician who is now a 50-year-old bartender. But he's never given up on his music. He's kept recording under the name of an alter ego he created and he's obsessively chronicled this alter ego's imaginary career, writing reviews, profiles and album liner notes. He collects all this in what he calls "The Chronicles." The only person he shares his music with is his sister, who also helps him take care of the practical matters in his life while he inhabits this imaginary world. She's also dealing with depression and their mother, who's losing her memory. Dana Spiotta's previous novel, "Eat the Document," was nominated for a National Book Award.

GROSS: Let's start with a reading from "Stone Arabia." Denise, the sister, is describing her brother Nik's "Chronicles."


Nik's "Chronicles" adhered to the facts and then didn't. When Nik's dog died in real life, his dog died in "The Chronicles." But in "The Chronicles" he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards. But it wasn't always clear what was conjured. The music for the tribute album for the dog actually exists, as does the cover art for it - a great black-and-white photo of Nik holding his dog with an intricate collage along the edge consisting of images of the great canines of history, from Toto to Lassie Rin Tin Tin Tin. But the fan letters didn't exist. In this way Nik chronicled his years in minute-but-twisted detail. The volumes were all there, a version of nearly every day of the past 30 years.

GROSS: Dana Spiotta, welcome to FRESH AIR. What interests you about the idea of actually producing the art - in this case, the music - and creating the album covers and then writing imaginary reviews and building a whole imaginary persona around it? So, you know, like Nik is really doing the art, but everything surrounding it that he's chronicling is fake. What interested you in that idea?


GROSS: You know, a lot of people basically do their work that way.


GROSS: You know, like they write novels that aren't read or make music that nobody hears...


GROSS: ...but they don't necessarily write reviews of it and have a whole fake alter ego that they've created.

SPIOTTA: Yeah. It's true. I mean it's, my stepfather is the inspiration for this character, and he did this very thing. He had a sort of 30-year chronicle of his life as a fake rock star. And he did it mostly as a laugh but he kept it up pretty well. And what I found is that he's, it seems to help him not feel bitter or resentful about his not having an official career. So I think that the trick is to do this thing and then to not mind that you're doing it on your own and to actually revel in that if that is where you end up.

And as you say, there are many people who keep their novels and their paintings and their music going even if they haven't made it - in whatever that word means - that's very - that was really what I was interested in, is what that feels like 25 years down the road. It's easy to say that when you're 17, I'm going to keep going no matter what, but what is that like when you're 50? What does it feel like for the people around you? You know, what did it cost you and what did it save you from?

GROSS: Yeah. Now, in your stepfather's case.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I mean he has a website. I went on it.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's excerpts of - there's four songs, four or five songs on it. He actually plays the music on it. I don't know if the other band members are real people or whether he plays all the parts.

SPIOTTA: No, they are. They're real people. Yeah, I exaggerated his - my character is more fantastical than Richard is. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, in your novel, Nik, who has his alter ego as a rock star, also writes in the voice of his sister in "The Chronicles" and - because she is a part of his life, so he writes her part.

SPIOTTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she's somebody who used to be very beautiful when she was young and now in her late 40s she's still very attractive. She had wanted to be an actress but didn't succeed. But, unlike Nik, who develops this imaginary world to keep performing in, she just kind of gives up acting. And what he writes in her voice in "The Chronicles" is: Nik's art was his life and I don't know what that means about a life. I have always resisted artistic impulses of any kind. I always believed that if you weren't good, what right did you have to do it?

And I think that's such a fundamental question. If you're not exceptionally talented at something but it gives you pleasure - like, if you're not good at playing guitar is it okay to play anyways? If you can't really sing well, is it okay to take singing lessons and sing and devote time to it, knowing that you're never really going to be very good. Was this a question you ever had to ask yourself? You seem very good at writing, so I don't know that you...


GROSS: ...needed to ask yourself about that.

SPIOTTA: Well, I have had had the experience of being a very bad actor.

GROSS: Really?


SPIOTTA: Yes, I did try acting when I was in high school and I was terrible at it. So I definitely have had the experience of being bad at artistic endeavor. And one of the things I avoided talking about in the book a little bit was how good Nik really is at what he does. I mean I think his "Chronicles" are certainly impressive, but is his music or not? I mean there's so much subjectivity these aesthetic questions and certainly whether you make it in the world doesn't mean, you know, that good people who are very good at producing music still don't make it and so on, as we all know. So I think that if everyone was secretly an artist, that would be a great thing, I guess is my short answer.

GROSS: So whereas Nik has, you know, created this whole imaginary life around his art, and he's chronicled every detail of it, his sister Denise is afraid she is losing her memory, that she's in the opposite position, that her past is just kind of vanishing - her real past is kind of vanishing. And she thinks maybe she has such bad recall because she threw out too much. Maybe she should've kept more souvenirs from the past. Or maybe she should've had some kind of accounting and not just got rid of everything so quickly. So you've created two very different ways of being kind of uncomfortable in the world.


GROSS: One which is like tossing things out, not keeping a record and forgetting. And the other is, you know, just like chronicling every detail, even the imaginary things.

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Well, this is something that became the central concern of the book, which is memory and sort of how - and identity and how these things interact. So I think for the character of Denise, her mother is losing her memory and her brother is creating a fake past, and it's putting her in a precarious position in terms of who she is. I think, you know, your family corroborates your memories, and you have the sense that when someone you love is losing their memory, that you're sort of - that affects you. You start to feel you're not sure who you are because one of your, the people who can corroborate your past is gone.

GROSS: It's so true.


SPIOTTA: So I thought...

GROSS: Excuse me.

SPIOTTA: ...this became - this is how it all started to tie together to me. It sort of happened organically that of course Nik's destabilization by making up his own past, he's sort of controlling this thing which none of us really can control. We may as well make up chronicles because if you're not - if you and I both experience something, really what we have is what we agree upon. And, you know, there's this phenomenon now that they're called reconsolidation of memory, where they now say that when we remember things, we are actually revising them each time we remember them. We we're bringing in things we saw on TV, were bringing in new information, so were constantly creating this narrative of our own past, which is not fixed, which is constantly changing. So in a sense, you know, all of these things become very slippery. And this gets very tied in, I think, with her own sense of mortality, that her life itself is slipping away, which it feels like when you get to be that age, you know, my age.


GROSS: Which is?

SPIOTTA: Forty-five. She's a little older, but, yeah.

GROSS: I often times call my brother or my very oldest friend in the world and say, did this happen?


GROSS: You know, or what do you remember about this? 'Cause I kind of slightly remember it but I have no idea what actually happened. Do you? And between the two of us we can maybe construct it. Do you have somebody to do that with?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Well, my brother. I have a little brother. And it's disturbing, though, Howell subjected these things are, because we really do have a small patch that overlaps these radically different stories of what happened. Yeah, it's very strange.

GROSS: Now, to write this book, because you're writing part of in Nik's voice, and Nik is writing in the voice of various music critics, you had to learn to write like various music critics, and you have to liner notes and obituaries and reviews. So what kind of reading did you do to get down the different languages that you would need to impersonate the voices that you wanted to?

SPIOTTA: I love this question. That was really so much fun. I do like to do a lot of research. I did read a lot of Lester Bangs and I read Greil Marcus and I read a lot of old Creem magazines. You remember Creem magazines in the '70s?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SPIOTTA: And when I was growing up I read a lot of New Musical Express and Melody Maker. But that's a sort of more British style. I really wanted American. So I was trying to get what Nik would have read because he has all these kind of rock-and-roll tropes of his head that had to be for this time period. And then he has these little weird kicks. He makes up quotes for people. You know, he makes up a quote from Gloria Steinem or he makes up a quote from Karl Popper. And because Nik is a, you know, he's a self-taught guy, working-class guy from Los Angeles, he's very smart, I could do whatever I wanted, really, and that's the joy that Nik takes, is that he can do whatever he wants. And so through him I got to do whatever I wanted. So in some weird way I kind of became like Nik Worth for a moment and I see it's so great not to have to worry about being derivative or...


SPIOTTA: ...or stealing things from people or getting it wrong. It was really fun.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Spiotta and we're talking about her new novel, which is called "Stone Arabia." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Spiotta. She is the author of the novel "Eat the Document" and the new novel "Stone Arabia." And it's about a man who is approaching 50 who never made it as a rock musician. But after he becomes a bartender and gives up a professional music career, he still keeps making records. But around these records he creates record jackets, record reviews. He creates a whole biography of this persona that he's created for himself under another name. And this persona actually makes the music but everything else is fake, the reviews, the album covers, and he calls this whole fake documentation "The Chronicles."

Did you ever want to be a musician or a musician's girlfriend?


SPIOTTA: Well, I am a musician's wife, so...

GROSS: Oh, are you+


SPIOTTA: My husband is a musician. He cooks and he's a chef but he also, he makes basement recordings. So many people in my life make basement recordings, so I feel very lucky, I'm surrounded by very creative people. But he makes records and then tries to get them out in the world and he plays out with his band. And, you know, these days with the music industry it's not like someone's going to discover you and sign you. I mean you sort of have to make your own records and put them out there and try to get a following. So...

GROSS: Go ahead and give them a plug. What's his name? What's the name of his band?

SPIOTTA: His name is Clement Coleman and his band is the Methodist Bells and they're terrific.

GROSS: Okay.


SPIOTTA: Thank you.

GROSS: Since your novel is inspired in part by your stepfather who created a musical persona for himself, should we end with one of his recordings from his website?

SPIOTTA: Oh, sure.


GROSS: I was thinking of "By School"(ph).

SPIOTTA: Oh, "By School," "By School" is a great one.

GROSS: Yeah. Do with anything about this?

SPIOTTA: This is a - my stepfather's band made this record. Village made this record, is the name of the band, and I believe it's from 1979.

GROSS: Now, should we maybe segue from - give the whole family a plug here.


GROSS: 'Cause everybody I think at this point is curious. Should we maybe segue from your stepfather's recording to your husband's, one of your husband's recordings?

SPIOTTA: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah? Okay. Dana's Spiotta, thank you so much.

SPIOTTA: Thank you so much, Terry. This is really fun.


VILLAGE: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Got my guitar all night. (Unintelligible) all night. Playing again (unintelligible). Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls. Hang on baby (unintelligible) world. You are rocking out of high school. I don't want to go to your school. You don't want to go to my school. But you're rocking out of my school. Oh, oh no. Oh, oh no. I'm just a broken hero of the Hollywood scene (unintelligible). And I've been selling you a fact of life and you've been listening to (unintelligible), 'cause you are rocking out of high school. I don't want to go to your school. You don't want to go to my school. But you're rocking out of high school.


METHODIST BELLS: (Singing) On our way to shopping town I've got to stop and look around, check my phone. Walk along the riverside I feel so cold but still I'm so alone. Everyone...

GROSS: We just heard Dana Spiotta's stepfather, Richard Frasca, and his band Village, and after that we heard her husband, Clement Coleman, and his band, the Methodist Bells. You can read an excerpt of Dana Spiotta's novel, "Stone Arabia," on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.





Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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